FOR most organisations, an Aisling Award is the pinnacle of achievement. But for Aidan Crean and the nature buffs at Mullaghglass Wetlands Project overlooking West Belfast, the gong they won last year was a springboard to do even more to save our vanishing biodiversity. Being named Environment champions at a gala dinner in the Europa was the affirmation and encouragement they needed to drive them to even greater things.

And now that includes an incredible and ambitious event in just a couple of months’ time – the first ever 24-hour Grand Belfast Hills Bioblitz to find and identify as many species as possible in a single day.

“The Aisling Awards was the defining moment for us and the Bioblitz evolved out of it,” Aidan told me. “The quarry people were so enthused and when they brought the award back to the boardroom, they were unanimous that they should continue to develop this project and have agreed to run the Bioblitz throughout the entire site on the weekend of May 24 and 25.

“And you can see that same eagerness and enthusiasm with the young ones who volunteer up here. A pat on the back is great, but for them it’s all about taking the next steps to help nature.”

The Bioblitz will be a full 24 hours of recording almost every living thing that exists in the former landfill site’s 100 acres. That means working right through the hours of darkness. Dúlra’s already signed up to the nightshift, when bats will be recorded, infrared cameras will hopefully reveal owls inside nestboxes, moth traps will be set and night-flying bugs will be caught in bedsheets.

Aidan and his team are in the process of recruiting scientists with expertise in every aspect of the natural world. “We have 10 signed up already but I’m hoping to recruit 30-plus scientists.”

Each scientist will be paired up with a couple of young volunteers to help them find and identify as many creatures as possible. The specialised knowledge at hand is astounding. “There will be experts in dragonflies, insects, spiders, birds, bats, bugs, grasses, sedges, lichens and beetles – even the leaf-biters,” said Aidan.

Leaf-biters? These are a whole hoard of creatures that hide in a curled-up leaf – they’ve evolved so that when they are laying eggs or sleeping, they roll a leaf over themselves for protection. Specialised experts in even those minuscule creatures will be on site.
There will also be bird-ringing, pond-dipping and trail cameras to capture animals like badgers, foxes and pine martens. And a team of young volunteers will be at camp zero on their laptops – beside a 24-hour countdown clock –  keying each find into the Irish National Biodiversity Data archive for posterity.

It’s the first 24-hour Bioblitz on the Belfast Hills, but they’ve already taken place in nature hotspots like Glenveagh National Park in Donegal, Glenariff Forest Park up the Glens and Dublin’s Phoenix Park. Aidan’s sure Mullaghglass will be able to compare favourably with anywhere on the island as regards biodiversity. “In fact next year we hope various places can do a Bioblitz on the same day and it can become a competition,” he said.
For obvious health and safety reasons the Bioblitz can’t be open to the public but there will be walks and tours which people will be able to book.

Mullaghglass Wetlands is really two distinct habitats – the ponds which were this week blanketed in frogspawn and the traditional hilltop fields of hawthorns, blackthorns and gorse bushes which are bigger in area than the Bog Meadows. It means that the variety of wildlife is multiplied – and that’s reflected in the birds of prey that visit – a short-eared owl was recently spotted gliding over the rushes in daylight, while red kites are regular visitors along with owls and buzzards.

Oh, and 10 pairs of sand martins – gabhlán gaoithe in Irish – nest in the quarry sandbanks. These specialised birds find it so hard to find adequate nest spots – they often return from Africa to Ireland to find their old habitat destroyed.

But not here. When they drop out of the sky into Mullaghlass around St Patrick’s Day all their dreams will have come true. Because this week, the indefatigable team  at Mullaghglass Wildlife Project were using an excavator to build an even bigger sandbank to attract even more sand martins.

If that Bioblitz ever becomes a national competition, Dúlra might just put a few quid on Mullaghglass to win it.

• If you’ve seen or photographed anything interesting, or have any nature questions, you can text Dúlra on 07801 414804.